Pilgrim Weakland

How the disgraced archbishop reckoned with his past
Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland (CNS photo/Sam Lucero)

When Archbishop Rembert Weakland died on August 22 at the age of ninety-five, the New York Times and Washington Post published long obituaries of the former archbishop of Milwaukee. They both recounted his once-prominent place in Catholic life and his dramatic resignation for having used Church money to settle a suit threatening to expose an affair he had with a man years earlier. Reading these obituaries, I was sent back to what I had written over a decade ago in a foreword to Pilgrim in a Pilgrim’s Church (2009, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), Weakland’s memoir and mea culpa. I was reminded that in helping to edit and cut the manuscript, I witnessed Weakland’s struggle to explain, describe, and “come clean” about his homosexuality and about Milwaukee’s sex-abuse problem. Our phone conversations included long pauses over lacunae in the narrative, phrases and sentences that needed emphasis, and others that needed toning down. Some may say this is not the whole story—what memoir is?—but it was the story he was able to tell after an extended and painful examination of his life and conscience and a search for true contrition. I was not empowered to offer absolution, but I was willing to write the following introduction and would do it again if I could pick up the phone and talk to him about his final years.

Weakland’s funeral Mass, celebrated on August 30 at Mater Christi Chapel in St. Francis, was picketed by several sex-abuse survivors. According to a news report, the protesters displayed photos of some seventy-five priests who they claimed were sex abusers during Weakland’s tenure. One of the protesters objected to the Cathedral Mass, saying, “It should have been a private funeral.” In truth, I was heartened that the protestor would countenance even a private funeral. It is sad that he and so many others suffer not only their original abuse, but life in a Church where the sex-abuse scandal has become semi-permanent, and where barriers to forgiveness and atonement seem insurmountable.

The following is a lightly edited version of my foreword to Weakland’s book, reprinted with Eerdmans’s permission.

 

In spring 2002, on a visit to Milwaukee, I sat down to dinner with Archbishop Rembert Weakland. The storm over clerical sexual abuse was blowing full force. As editor of Commonweal, I wanted to hear the views of a seasoned churchman on the scandal that was tearing the Catholic Church apart. However many facts he might willingly share—or not—in an interview with a journalist, I anticipated an informed assessment from a man deeply familiar with the ins-and-outs of the Vatican and of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Archbishop Weakland readily acknowledged the gravity of the scandal, conveying in some detail his own longstanding effort to resolve cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Though he was following the canonical procedures set down in Church law, he told me that his efforts to dismiss these priests were regularly rebuffed by Vatican officials. The archbishop was also troubled by the failure of some bishops to take matters in hand during earlier exposés of clerical abuse cases. While some adopted the guidelines proposed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or devised their own, others did little or nothing to deal with their clergy abusers. All these distinctions were lost in the revelations that emerged in early 2002 about the Archdiocese of Boston, and then many other locales. Everywhere Catholic dioceses were under siege, and all bishops were under suspicion.

The dilemma the archbishop described was troubling, and it was not his dilemma alone. If a knowledgeable Vatican insider like Weakland had not succeeded in convincing Rome, what could ordinary bishops do with priests who had abused children and yet could not be dismissed from the clergy? Moving them from parish to parish, even after what was purported to be successful treatment, led to repeat offenses; isolating them from children proved practically impossible and therefore was no guarantee of safety. On the civil rather than canonical side of the law much might have been done—as we now see—but local police and prosecutors were often reluctant, in Milwaukee as elsewhere, to bring child-abuse cases to a courtroom—even if parents were to agree to the notoriety of a public forum. Psychological and pastoral issues weighed heavily on how a bishop assessed and dealt with conflicting charges and denials. But in 2002, all nuance was lost in a cascade of accusations.

I witnessed Weakland’s struggle to explain, describe, and “come clean” about his homosexuality and about Milwaukee’s sex-abuse problem.

Not long after our dinner conversation, Weakland himself was caught in a media storm. The offense was not child abuse, but, given the context of the time, his own transgression delivered another jolt to the Church and more grist for the scandal mills. The prologue to his memoir, Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church, gives a dramatic account of the end of his ecclesiastical career in a blaze of TV cameras and a penitential rite at Milwaukee’s St. John’s Cathedral. Full of remorse, he begged forgiveness from his flock for an adult homosexual relationship from years earlier that had ended in demands for money, a confidentiality agreement, and the use of diocesan funds to forestall a public trial. The Vatican immediately accepted Weakland’s resignation, and his career ended. He seemed to disappear.

In meetings over the years, I had admired Weakland’s thoughtful reflections on issues polarizing the Church; he was knowledgeable and straightforward. After reading news accounts of the far-from-clear charges against him and of his apology, I wrote a brief comment in Commonweal. “His intelligence and balance have always seemed to me a true gift to the Church. It saddens me greatly that on the eve of his retirement, a two-decades-old encounter—perhaps an indiscretion, perhaps a grave sin—with an adult male should be publicized so as to destroy the reputation of a great churchman.” Somewhat against the tide of opinion, I lamented what seemed to be a concerted effort to exploit this homosexual relationship by taking advantage of media interest in the sex-abuse scandal: “It is a tragedy that legitimate concern about the sexual abuse of children by priests is turning into a sexual witch hunt.”

 

Six years after these events, I had a phone call from Eerdmans’s Jon Pott, who asked if I would read and offer an assessment of a manuscript from Rembert Weakland. There had been rumors that he was working on a memoir; apparently he had finished it. A very long manuscript soon arrived. I read it, absorbed and fascinated by the story he had to tell. Small-town boy from Pennsylvania—smart, hard-working, musically gifted—grows up·in poverty, raised by widowed mother with six children. St. Vincent’s Archabbey in Latrobe offers him a high-school education; he becomes a monk, an accomplished pianist, and a teacher. Studies at St. Anselm’s, the Benedictine college in Rome, are followed by courses at the Juilliard School of Music in New York and at Columbia University, and by eye-opening work in a Manhattan parish. Finally, he returns to St. Vincent’s and is elected abbot. All by the age of thirty-six!

This quintessentially American story of rising from poverty soon becomes a quintessentially Catholic story of ecclesiastical advancement in Rome: Weakland is elected abbot primate of the Benedictine order, launches on an unprecedented series of visits to monasteries around the world, adapts the fifteen-hundred-year-old monastic order to the needs of the Vatican II Church, and becomes a confidant of Pope Paul VI. Finally, he takes on the very un-monastic and (for a monk) lonely task of serving as Archbishop of Milwaukee and a leader in the U.S. Catholic Church. “Great history,” I reported back to Jon Pott.

The Vatican immediately accepted Weakland’s resignation, and his career ended. He seemed to disappear.

When Pott later asked if I would work with Archbishop Weakland to revise and cut the manuscript, I hesitated. I am not a book editor; five thousand words is generally my outer editing limit. And though I am a cradle Catholic, I am not particularly attuned to the culture of the Catholic clergy. And I feel little confidence in dealing with the topic of homosexuality. How could I help with a memoir in which this was a core issue, apparently obscure for many years to the author himself? I suppose I ended up saying yes because I am a great admirer of the Benedictines, who educated me and set me on a path summed up in the title of another book, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, by Jean LeClercq, OSB. Finally, as I have made clear, I was and am an admirer of Rembert Weakland.

But A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop is more than a history of ecclesiastical life in the late twentieth century. It is also a remarkable memoir. The person of Rembert Weakland comes through: intellectually serious, musically accomplished, religiously astute, and pastorally energetic. He is a man of deep Catholic conviction unafraid to follow and express his well-tutored intuitions on what the faith requires not only of him but also of his episcopal peers in Rome and the United States. While he served as abbot primate, his commitment to the Benedictine tradition led to turf wars and struggles with curial officials that found their way to the desk of Paul VI. The pope, acquainted with the Benedictines and sympathetic to their autonomous form of governance, helped Weakland resolve these issues in the order’s favor; a firm friendship was established.

Returning to the United States in the late seventies, Weakland brought the Benedictine tradition of consultation of the community to his pastoral work in Milwaukee. So, too, as chair of the committee commissioned by the USCCB to write a pastoral letter on economic life, he held far-ranging hearings and conversations with people from every walk of life. The publication of “Economic Justice for All,” along with the pastoral letter on peace and war, chaired by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, implemented a new consultative pastoral style in the U.S. Catholic Church. In Milwaukee, the same pattern prevailed with clergy and laity, especially women who participated in his hearings on the role of women in the Church and on abortion. As Archbishop of Milwaukee, Weakland found his relations with Pope John Paul II less congenial than they had been with Paul VI. Renovations to the cathedral, appointment of auxiliaries, and a variety of issues, personal and parochial, led to direct confrontations with the pope and curial officials that few Catholics would imagine possible. Some of these disputes were petty in the extreme.

Weakland’s departure from public life in 2002 created a gap in the U.S. Church's leadership. Though Weakland was widely regarded as liberal, and even a bit radical by many Catholic and secular commentators, his temperament, knowledge, and long experience offered critical balance in a Church increasingly polarized by internal disagreements and public disputes.

 

Pilgrim Weakland amply demonstrates the persistent effort required of a follower of Christ to be a member and servant of his Church.

Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church offers a robust account of what leadership in the Catholic Church today requires and entails. It is easy to imagine that without the abrupt end to his distinguished career, Weakland might never have pursued the self-scrutiny and reassessment that produced this candid and absorbing memoir. As Weakland writes in the prologue, immediately after the penitential service at St. John’s Cathedral, feeling shamed and humiliated, he wanted nothing more than to hide, to avoid people and steer clear of public life. In time, steady sympathy from friends, parishioners, and Catholics in Milwaukee as well as around the country drew him to reconsider his situation and his prospects and to come to terms with his homosexuality. He says, “I felt a new freedom, a sense of being liberated for the first time. I could begin to come to terms with my life as a whole in a spirit of truth and sincerity that had eluded me till then. For at least two decades, I felt I was walking an ecclesiastical tightrope, trying to be true to myself but also loyal to the institution that had nurtured and sustained me for many decades. The tension between being myself and trying to be a bishop in an image I found outmoded ceased.”

Close observers of the U.S. Catholic Church would agree that bishops long regarded as princes of the Church have fallen from grace and fallen hard. The clerical abuse scandal is hardly the only challenge they have faced over the past few decades. Weakland’s account of his years as archabbot in Rome and as archbishop of Milwaukee amply portrays the spiritual, ecclesiastical, and administrative struggles Church leaders live with every day. Even more, Pilgrim Weakland amply demonstrates the persistent effort required of a follower of Christ to be a member and servant of his Church. The end of an ecclesiastical career turned to be the beginning of a new spiritual journey.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. This article has been adapted from the foreword to A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop by Rembert Weakland (Eerdmans).

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